Heather Koyuk

Web Computing Specialist - Data Curator

Heather KoyukI was born in Nome, Alaska. My mother was a schoolteacher from New York, and my father was an Inupiat Eskimo originally from King Island.

Not all Eskimos lived in igloos; If you Google ‘King Island Alaska’ you will find pictures of the tiny village of Ukivok, comprised entirely of huts built on stilts on the side of the cliff. This was where my father and his siblings grew up - at least until the government closed the King Island School in 1959, effectively forcing almost everybody to move to Nome because public schooling for children was mandatory. By 1970 nobody lived on King Island, although recent efforts have been made to preserve the village and to allow King Islanders to return seasonally.

The island is famous for being the subject of the children’s book King Island Christmas, written by Jean Rogers and illustrated by Rie Munoz. The story is based on real events that occurred while Rogers lived and taught in Ukivok in the early 1950s. This book was even made into a famous musical!

King Islanders are famed for their Eskimo dancing as well as their artwork. Another Google search for my grandfather Joachim Koyuk or my uncle Isaac Koyuk will yield many pictures of their ivory carvings - they both were highly esteemed Inupiat carvers.

My parents divorced when I was very young. I had little contact with my father, Henry, after the divorce due to his alcohol abuse and eventually the resulting illness that left him paralyzed. (Alcohol abuse is, sadly, extremely epidemic in the Native Alaskan communities and in the Native American populations in general.) My mother remarried and we moved away from Nome when I was five. Eventually we settled in Juneau where I attended elementary school, middle school, and finally dropped out of high school when I was 17.

At my parents’ urging I enrolled in a few college classes to get my GED but I never considered returning to college until many years later. In late December of 1999, my daughter was born. I remained at home the first year to take care of her and I returned to work as a waitress when my daughter was 13 months old. Having a tiny, living being dependent on me changed my perspective in many ways, and by summer of that year, I was determined to go back to college to provide a better life for her.

I enrolled in the remote degree program at Alaska Pacific University (APU). I originally chose accounting because I thought that it would be similar to math, which I had always enjoyed. (No offense to accountants, but I soon figured out that accounting has very little to do with math!) By the end of the first semester I knew that accounting was not for me but I didn’t know what else to take. I was sitting in a hotel room in Anchorage a week before classes started for the spring semester, flipping through a University of Alaska (UAA) catalog, when I found the Computer Science degree. I had never programmed a line of code in my life, I didn’t know what an algorithm was, and I thought that Java was what you drank in the morning! Nevertheless, the more I read the class descriptions, the more I wanted to take the classes. The only problem was that the Computer Science degree was not offered distance. At that time I lived in Haines and there was no way I could move for four years to start and finish a degree.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. That very next morning I went to UAA and talked in person to each of the Computer Science professors. I explained my situation and said that I would communicate and turn in my homework via email and take my tests fully proctored, if they would only let me try. They all agreed, with the stipulation that for at least the last year I would be on campus to take the classes that couldn’t be taken distance.

Although taking the first three years of my computer science degree remotely was not easy, I flourished. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and I found out that I was pretty darn good at it. I got an internship at IBM for the summer of my Junior year and I was invited to attend a very selective Google Women’s Workshop a couple of years later. I moved to Anchorage in 2004 for what I thought would be my final year, but issues with transfer credits from APU threw a wrench in that plan – which was fine with me, as I ended up being employed by my professors to work on various research-type projects (which I loved doing) and even tutored computer science for a while (which I also really enjoyed). In the spring of 2006 I graduated from UAA magna cum laude with departmental and university honors.

Before I took my final exams I was already employed by a wonderful GIS/Web Solutions company called Resource Data, Inc (RDI). I learned a lot while I was working for them but I had always wanted to move out of Alaska so in 2008 I moved to Seattle where I continued to work for RDI remotely for another year. After that I worked at a cancer research company here in Seattle but always knew that I wanted to get more into the data side of things. I especially wanted to work with large amounts of scientific data, and to be working on projects that were more research and science oriented (cancer research would seem to fit the bill, but my job at that cancer research company consisted mostly of making web forms). Last October I finally got my wish – I was hired by JISAO as a Web Computing Specialist/Data Curator, working with scientific data and programs to support the data, and I couldn’t be happier!